Cranford baseball comes back and Graceffo excels on mound in season-opener at Scotch Plains

SCOTCH PLAINS – Tyler Stines was in the driver’s seat.

With the game tied in the bottom of the eighth, the bases loaded and nobody out, the No. 8 batter for Scotch Plains felt that if he got his bat on the ball the game would be over.

He wasn’t thinking that all he had to do was get his body on the ball.

“I knew that no matter what we were going to score, whether it was going to be me (making it happen) or one of my teammates,” Stines said.

After taking ball one low, Stines got back in the batter’s box ready to go once more.

The next thing he knew reliever Kevin Donovan’s second pitch was too inside, brushing across the middle of his uniform shirt.

“It hit me right here on the S (of where it reads Raiders on his shirt),” Stines said.

Well, in baseball if a walk is as good as a hit, then certainly a hit batsman is as good as a walk is as good as a hit, especially when it means that the game-winning run will cross home plate as a result.

Stines might have preferred something a bit more dramatic, but he had no problem with getting hit by a pitch and driving in the winning run that way to help lift Scotch Plains to a 4-3, eight inning win over Cranford in Saturday’s Opening Day Union County Conference-Watchung Division baseball game at Scotch Plains High.

Cranford overcame a 3-0 deficit by scoring two runs in the sixth and – down to its last out and final two strikes – tied the game in the seventh on a wild pitch.

After Cranford starter Gordon Graceffo closed the seventh with a fastball swinging strikeout – he came back from a 3-0 count on the batter to leave Scotch Plains with the bases loaded – the Cougars threatened again in the top of the eighth.

Producing baserunners and also leaving baserunners on in every inning, Cranford had a runner on third with two outs when leadoff batter Tyler Szczech hit a slow roller to second and was called out on a bang-bang 4-3 play at first.

In the bottom of the eighth, lefty-swinging Danny Wilkinson led off with an opposite field double off the middle of the left field fence, his second hit to that spot. Earlier in the game he tossed five shutout innings, striking out nine and walking three before moving over to first base after tossing 104 pitches.

In to run for Wilkinson was senior Matt Zucker. The next batter, Jonny Ramos, tried to bunt the runners over. He previously entered the game as a pinch runner.

After one failed attempt, Ramos didn’t have to try anymore because a wild pitch moved the runners over. Ramos eventually walked to give Scotch Plains the bases loaded and nobody out.

Stines had no doubt the game would soon be over and conclude in favor of the host Raiders.

“I stepped up to the plate with full confidence,” Stines said. “My plan was to put bat on ball. He clipped me right across the shirt.”

Scotch Plains took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first, producing three hits off Graceffo, who would allow just eight in seven innings complete. Willie Gale led off with an infield single, one out later Dean Kirian singled softly the other way to left and then the next batter, Michael Dieu, followed with an opposite field bloop hit to right, driving in Gale.

After Graceffo settled down and retired nine batters in a row, including the side in order in the second and third, Wilkinson delivered his first opposite field double to left with one out in the fourth. This time Ramos, running for Wilkinson, came in to score the second Scotch Plains run on an opposite field RBI bloop single to left produced this time by designated hitter Patrick Cuccurullo. The next batter was Stines, who also went the other way and drove a ball to right field that was caught by Jimmy Shriner for the second out, with Sam Schetelich scoring from third on the sacrifice fly. Schetelich singled to center after Wilkinson’s hit, putting runners on second and third.

Schetelich also made the defensive play of the game from his shortstop position. It could also turn out to be the defensive play of the year – it was that good.

After Cranford failed to score in the second after loading the bases with nobody out – Wilkinson came back to strike out the next three batters – the Cougars next had second and third and one out in the third. Wilkinson then struck out the next Cranford batter on an off speed pitch for his seventh strikeout. Then senior first baseman Pat Connelly stepped up to the plate.

In the second Connelly reached first on a throwing error by Wilkinson when Connelly attempted to bunt a runner to second. This time Connelly went the other way and hit a line drive shot that seemed targeted for left field.

Instead, Schetelich left his feet and snared the liner with his glove hand, making as fine of a leaping, one-handed catch as any infielder will make this season or any other season for that matter.

“I jumped as high as I could and got lucky,” Schetelich said. “With Wilkinson on the mound I was shading a bit to the opposite side, to the 5 hole. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

The catch saved at least one run if not two and kept Cranford off the scoreboard for another inning.

“This is Sam’s third year on varsity, he played second the last two years, and that catch was huge,” Scotch Plains head coach Joe Higgins said. “We didn’t really play well defensively (Scotch Plains made three errors), so we needed that.

“It was really a tremendous catch and showed Sam’s athleticism and instincts (to get to the ball).”

“Early on we didn’t execute,” Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery said. “Their pitcher did a nice job and struck us out, but when you have bases loaded and no outs and second and third and one out and don’t cash in on those chances you’re not going to win.

“That was the difference, they scored early and we didn’t and that’s why we lost the ball game.”

Cranford finally reached the scoreboard in the sixth when – with two outs and runners on second and third – Szczech produced an opposite field 2-run single to right to pull the Cougars to within 3-2. Connelly opened the inning with a double down the right field line and then Katz was hit by a pitch. Michael McGee moved the runners over with a sacrifice bunt.

With pinch runner Chris Guiditta on third with two outs in the seventh – Michael Meola reached on an opposite field, one out double to left – Connelly came up seeking to tie the game with his bat. In last year’s Union County Tournament semifinals against Scotch Plains, Connelly won the game with an RBI single in the bottom of the eighth.

The fourth pitch of the at-bat went over the head of Scotch Plains catcher Michael Dieu, with Dieu somehow managing to get the top of his glove on it. The wild pitch went all the way to the backstop, with Guiditta advancing from third to even the game at 3-3.

Scotch Plains was one out away and two strikes away from winning in seven innings, which would have given Wilkinson the mound victory.

Instead, the Raiders still found a way to come back in extra innings, with two-inning relief pitcher Jake Friedman getting the win.

Cranford went 3-0 vs. Scotch Plains last year, including a UCT semifinal win at home.

Scotch Plains went 3-0 vs. Cranford in 2016, including a UCT semifinal win at Kean.

However, Scotch Plains most recently remembered last year’s three losses to Cranford.

“It feels good to come out here and make a statement like this,” Stines said. “We proved that when we put our best foot forward that we can be just as good as the teams we’re going to play.”

“We want to play hard every game,” Schetelich said. “We want to show other teams that we will fight to the end.”

“It’s nice to start 1-0, especially going against the teams we have to in our division,” Higgins said.

Both starting pitchers – Wilkinson and Graceffo – immediately showed that they are two of the best pitchers in Union County. Wilkinson was relieved after five innings because of his pitch count.

“My off speed was better and I was also getting strikes with my curve by throwing it over the top,” Wilkinson said. “I noticed they were chasing my fastballs, I guess they were anxious to hit it.”

Coming back to strike out the side in the second after Cranford loaded the bases was not what Wilkinson was immediately thinking.

“I felt that if I could strike out the first guy then we could try to turn two,” Wilkinson said. “Then when I was 0-2 on the next guy I wanted to strike him out. Then I just beared down and got the next batter.”

“Dan is as tough of a player as there is mentally,” Higgins said. “The way he was throwing, his stuff is so much better. He has showed tremendous improvement from last year.”

“In the off-season I worked out, did long toss and my shoulder has felt better than ever,” Wilkinson said.

Graceffo was not going to be denied in the bottom of the seventh and his pitching out of a jam sent the game to extra innings.

“It was a gutsy performance by him, to come back from 3-0 and strike out the batter with the bases loaded,” McCaffery said.

Graceffo also fields his position extremely well on bunts, firing dead-on strikes to the first baseman to make sure he gets the batter running to first out.

NOTES: Seven of the game’s 15 hits were to the opposite field, with both teams scoring their first two runs on opposite field hits.

UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE-WATCHUNG DIVISION

BASEBALL AT SCOTCH PLAINS HIGH SCHOOL

Cranford (0-1, 0-1)                  0     0     0       0     0     2      1   0 – 3  6  0

Scotch Plains (1-0, 1-0)           1     0     0       2     0     0      0   1 –  4  9  3

CRANFORD STARTING PITCHER:

Senior right hander Gordon Graceffo (no decision)

7 innings complete: 3 runs on 8 hits

9 strikeouts, 1 walk (intentional)

Perfect innings: second, third and sixth.

Struck out the side: first inning.

Pitch count: 1-19. 2-11. 3-7. 4-18. 5-16. 6-13. 7-21. Total: 105.

CRANFORD RELIEF PITCHER:

Junior right hander Kevin Donovan (0-1)

Pitched the 8th and faced four batters.

1 run on 1 hit

0 strikeouts, 2 walks, 1 hit batter

Pitch count: 8-17. Total: 17.

SCOTCH PLAINS STARTING PITCHER:

Junior left hander Dan Wilkinson (no decision)

5 innings complete: 0 runs on 3 hits

9 strikeouts, 3 walks

Struck out the side: first and second innings

Pitch count: 1-19. 2-26. 3-20. 4-23. 5-16. Total: 104.

FIRST SCOTCH PLAINS RELIEF PITCHER:

Senior right hander Matt Kipp (hold)

1 inning complete: 2 runs on 2 hits

1 strikeout, 0 walks, 1 hit batter

Pitch count: 6-18. Total: 18.

SECOND SCOTCH PLAINS RELIEF PITCHER:

Senior right hander Jake Friedman (1-0)

2 innings complete: 1 run on 1 hit

0 strikeouts, 1 walk

Pitch count: 7-17. 8-11. Total: 28.

SINGLES:

Cranford (3):

2nd-Connor Katz (infield past pitcher).

5th-Michael Murphy (to LF).

6th-Tyler Szczech (opposite field 2-run to RF).

Scotch Plains (7):

1st-Willie Gale (infield, beats 4-3 throw).

1st-Dean Kirian (opposite field slow hit to LF).

1st-Michael Dieu (opposite field RBI bloop single to RF).

4th-Sam Schetelich (hard to CF).

4th-Patrick Cuccurullo (opposite field RBI bloop single to RF).

5th-Willie Gale (hard to LF).

7th-Tyler Stines (opposite field to RF).

DOUBLES:

Cranford (3):

3rd-Michael Murphy (to LF).

6th-Pat Connelly (down RF line).

7th-Michael Meola (opposite field over LF’s head).

Scotch Plains (2):

4th-Danny Wilkinson (opposite field to LF)

8th-Danny Wilkinson (opposite field to LF – hit fence in middle on fly)

TRIPLES:

Cranford – None.

Scotch Plains – None.

HOME RUNS:

Cranford – None.

Scotch Plains – None.

CRANFORD COUGARS (0-1):

35-Tyler Szczech, junior shortstop

40-Michael Murphy, sophomore center fielder

42-Jimmy Shriner, junior right fielder

10-Michael Meola, junior third baseman

32-Jake DeClerico, sophomore second baseman

4-Pat Connelly, senior first baseman

16-Connor Katz, sophomore designated hitter

21-Michael McGee, junior catcher

1-Joseph Meola, sophomore left fielder

49-Gordon Graceffo, senior pitcher (did not bat)

23-Kevin Donovan, junior pitcher (did not bat)

33-Chris Guiditta, junior pinch runner

SCOTCH PLAINS RAIDERS (1-0):

22-Willie Gale, junior right fielder

1-Josh Canavan, junior left fielder

9-Dean Kirian, sophomore, second baseman

15-Michael Dieu, junior catcher

40-Danny Wilkinson, junior pitcher-first baseman

6-Sam Schetelich, senior shortstop

32-Patrick Cuccurullo, junior designated hitter

3-Jake Friedman, senior first baseman-pitcher (did not bat)

5-Matt Kipp, senior pitcher (did not bat)

21-Tyler Stines, junior third baseman

24-Patrick Downey, senior center fielder

2-Jonny Ramos, junior pinch runner and batted once (walk)

25-Matt Zucker, senior pinch runner (scored winning run)

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